University of Florida

UF Gators expect some freshmen to make early impact

UF freshman Shawn Davis, from Miami Southridge High.
UF freshman Shawn Davis, from Miami Southridge High. For the Miami Herald

James Robinson rose after practice on Friday and towered above his kneeling teammates to tell them his name, position and hometown. It’s a common practice for Florida’s newcomers. Robinson just happened to do it much later than the others.

Friday was Robinson’s first day at practice after being cleared to play. It was a mission for Jim McElwain and his staff to get him to Florida. A mission that included a signing day surprise and a late entrance, but one that ended with his official introduction.

The 6-foot-4 wideout was Florida’s highest-rated offensive recruit in its 2017 recruiting class, and McElwain was excited to finally have him at practice.

“It’s called taking advantage of the opportunity,” he said. “And for him, it’s a real good opportunity.”

But it’s not just Robinson who has an opportunity to make an early impact. Since preseason practice started last week, McElwain has praised Florida’s crop of new talent, which he said will be given every opportunity to challenge for playing time.

That’s especially true in the defensive backfield, where Florida is trying to replace Jalen Tabor, Quincy Wilson, Marcus Maye and Marcell Harris. Among the potential replacements are Brad Stewart, Southridge alum Shawn Davis, Columbus alum CJ Henderson and American Heritage alum Marco Wilson, who played nickelback on Monday with the first-team defense.

“I don’t throw those young guys’ names out, because it’s not fair,” McElwain said of elevating any of the young DBs ahead of practice. “However, I’m excited to see those guys.”

Defensive coordinator Randy Shannon said across the defense, whether they play or not, he’s already seen this freshman class making a difference by pushing veterans.

“These big up-front guys that we have in,” Shannon said, “have made a little change with some of these D-linemen that we have because they’re pushing themselves a little more because the talent that we brought in at defensive line kind of scares the guys who’s older.”

The same thing is happening with the linebackers, he said.

On offense, Robinson is the standout because he towers over his fellow receivers, and he was praised by receivers coach Kerry Dixon on Monday for hanging on after bobbling a pass. But McElwain said he’s behind after missing the summer B semester.

Still, McElwain has maintained he’s excited about some of the players the Gators have brought in. And as it stands now, that’s a trend that could continue into future recruiting classes.

The Gators currently sit seventh in the 247Sports composite recruiting rankings with a commitment from five-star quarterback Matt Corral leading the 17-player class of 2018. For 2019, Florida’s nine pledges rank as the best class in the country.

McElwain said the uptick in recruiting quality as of late is because of the relationships his staff formed with younger players when they first arrived in Gainesville.

As for the team’s new players already on campus, McElwain joked when asked if any have caught his eye this early in camp.

“I don’t know,” he answered. “I think we’ll be alright with those guys.”

▪ Graduate transfer quarterback Malik Zaire was the first and only quarterback to work with the first-team offense during Monday’s open portion of practice. The former Notre Dame starter was 0-for-2 passing with a deep overthrow to Josh Hammond and a throw into the ground on a rollout.

▪ Presumptive starting left tackle Martez Ivey was out Monday with swelling of an undisclosed body part. The Gators used right tackle Jawaan Taylor at left tackle and played Tyler Jordan at right tackle in Ivey’s absence. The rest of the first-team line was composed of Brett Heggie, T.J. McCoy and Fred Johnson, as it has been so far this preseason.

McElwain didn’t answer when asked whether Ivey also missed practice this weekend.