Freshman quarterback Kadarius Toney had an impressive spring game.
Five to watch: Gators expecting big things from this group
A big spring football focus is usually on player development, on coaching up the young players and giving them a bunch of reps and opportunities to show what they can do. As a result, new rising stars emerge.
It happens every year. It happened again this spring at Florida.
Here's a look at five young Gators who had a breakout spring:
Kadarius Toney, quarterback
It did not take long for this true freshman to establish that he's going to see playing time in the fall in some capacity. He brought late energy to the spring game with his scrambling touchdown pass and lightning quick runs through the defense. While he's probably not a serious challenger for the starting quarterback role (at this early stage), he's likely earned a package of plays that he'll get to run next season to give opposing defense one more thing to prepare for. And good luck with that. While many came out of the spring thinking Toney is mainly just a runner, he's also an accomplished enough passer to keep defenses honest. Load the box against him and you run the risk of him throwing it over your head. In his junior and senior seasons at Eight Mile (Ala.) High School, Toney combined to THROW for 6,498 yards and 69 touchdowns. Add in his rushing numbers, and the kid accounted for a whopping 8,288 total yards and 100 touchdowns in his final two years of high school. It's going to be fun watching him develop — and intriguing to see the creative ways this coaching staff gets him involved.
Brett Heggie, offensive guard
When Heggie arrived on campus last summer, the coaching staff started grooming the four-star prospect to be UF's center of the future. He may well end being that eventually, but after his performance at guard in the spring, he may have an even bigger upside at that position. Tough and aggressive, Heggie plays with a physical edge (and mean streak) new offensive line coach Brad Davis is looking for in the big guys up front. He's versatile enough to step in and play center, but right now it looks like he's going to be the starting left guard, a position he held throughout the second half of the spring. It must be his natural position because he said he felt comfortable there after the first practice. He brings a much-needed physical presence to the middle of the line. “Coach Davis is a high-effort guy. He preaches being physical, so it's in my head, the mindset every day, to go hard, and that's what I do,” he said.
Josh Hammond, wide receiver
Getting a whole bunch of reps due to injuries to some of the other wide receivers (most notably Dre Massey and Freddie Swain), Hammond blossomed this spring. Showing excellent quickness, body control and hands, Hammond was one of the Gators' most consistent playmakers in the passing game throughout the spring and in the spring game. His picture-perfect route and 46-yard reception from Feleipe Franks set up the game's first score, and put an exclamation point on his strong spring. As a true freshman, Hammond showed us little glimpses here and there of his potential, starting three games and playing in 13. But he really wasn't a factor, catching only 14 passes for 177 yards. Based on his athleticism and production in the spring, he's set himself up to be a major contributor in the fall, and another skill player capable of taking some of the pressure off leading receiver Antonio Callaway.
Jabari Zuniga, defensive end
This quick, aggressive defender started to emerge last season as a redshirt freshman, leading the Gators in sacks with five. But the actual breakout never occurred because he slowed down in terms of production in the second half of the season. Only one of his sacks came against an SEC school. This spring, the breakout came. Zuniga was a dominant player throughout the 14 practices (and in the spring game) as a pass rusher and run stopper. One of the defense's goals heading into the spring was to improve the Gators' pass rush from the edge. Zuniga did just that.
C.J. McWilliams, cornerback
It seems unlikely that a player held out of contact could have a breakout spring, but this redshirt freshman definitely did. Participating in all the non-contact drills, McWilliams showed excellent quickness and cover skills, and a natural knack for playing the position. On a team in desperate need of depth at the crucial corner positions, McWilliams looks like he's going to provide it — and more. McWilliams was not a highly rated recruit coming out of high school about a year ago. Many dismissed him as a prospect because he was much undersized (around 160 pounds) and he looked like he was 12 years old in his recruiting mugshot. While sitting out last season, many probably forgot about him. But he certainly did not lose his focus. He added about 25 pounds of muscle (and is now up to around 190) and got himself ready to do everything he was allowed to do in the spring. Even without participating in contact work, McWilliams has put himself in a position to see significant playing time in 2017.
Contact Robbie Andreu at 352-374-5022 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Also check out Andreu's blog at Gatorsports.com.
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