Freshman Lamical Perine took a screen pass from Luke Del Rio in the backfield and turned his attention to the end zone.
First-year right tackle Jawaan Taylor chipped a blocker in front of him, giving Perine open room to run. The running back cut to his left and went untouched for a 28-yard touchdown, the Gators’ final scoring drive in a 45-7 rout of Kentucky to open Southeastern Conference play on Saturday.
With two weeks under their belts, UF coach Jim McElwain doesn’t view his freshmen as rookies anymore. They have in-game experience and know his expectations.
Now it’s time to step up, and their team has seen the progression from the first-year players.
“It’s kind of hard to tell how freshmen are going to react when they play in the game. … Some guys freak out. Other guys say, ‘Hey, it’s just a game. It’s just football,’ ” McElwain said. “For those guys to go in calm-minded and do their job is big.”
For Perine, Saturday was a moment of redemption.
He had one opportunity in Florida’s season opener against UMass. He fumbled on the first-quarter rushing attempt and didn’t receive another chance the rest of the game.
“Of course he was upset [after the UMass game],” Del Rio said. “I’d be mad if he wasn’t upset, but he didn’t get in the gutter. He didn’t pack it in.”
Instead, the 5-11, 221-pound Perine responded with a team-best 105 rushing yards on 17 carries against Kentucky and the 28-yard touchdown catch.
With that performance, Perine is one of just three true freshmen in the country with a 100-yard rushing game through the first two weeks in the Football Bowl Subdivision. The others: Michigan’s Chris Evans (112 against Hawaii) and Wake Forest’s Cade Carney (108 against Duke).
“Lamical — the guy’s a pretty good player,” McElwain said. “He’s an SEC back.”
Helping Perine with that accomplishment was Taylor, the 6-5 offensive lineman who dazzled in training camp and had to make a statement just to get on the field.
He dropped about 50 pounds between his senior year of high school and the start of the season, which helped his mobility and proved to McElwain his dedication.
“He came back at the end of camp down to about 340 and playing like a ball of rolling butcher knives,” McElwain said. “I love the way he plays and the energy he plays with.”
Taylor entered the Kentucky game at right tackle during the second series after Fred Johnson sustained an ankle injury. He held firm and with the rest of the offensive line, Taylor paved the way for Florida’s four-headed running back group and kept Del Rio upright. By game’s end, UF had 244 rushing yards and Del Rio was not sacked once.
“He’s solid, man,” running back Mark Thompson said. “For a big guy, I remember I hit him with a tap in the stomach one time and I was like, ‘Dang, his abs are better than mine.’ ”
And come Saturday against North Texas — a Conference USA team with a 5-19 record over the past two years — more first-year players should get an opportunity to make an impact on Florida’s offense. Most notable among them are freshman receivers Freddie Swain and Josh Hammond. Through two games, the duo has eight catches for 75 yards and a touchdown. But with sophomore Antonio Callaway hampered by a quadriceps injury, the freshmen could see extended time.
“You do want to get these young guys some reps and some throws to them, get some live action, because it is invaluable,” Del Rio said. “It’s different. Game speed is very different. You can go as hard as you want in training camp, but the adrenaline’s flowing when there’s 90,000 people and you just play faster.”