GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida’s season opener showed the Gators need to shore up their secondary and find more receiving threats.
They’ll get a huge boost at both spots this week with All-America cornerback Jalen “Teez” Tabor and tight end C’yontai Lewis returning for the Kentucky game. They were suspended for the season opener and from team activities on Aug. 17 after fighting each other in practice the day prior.
“We’re excited to have them back,” McElwain said. “They’re great players and great people and care a lot about this team, care a lot about how they can affect the people around them. We need their energy. Both of them were leaders.”
Tabor and Lewis were missed Saturday. UMass hit a couple of big throws against the Gators, including a 53-yarder, while UF quarterback Luke Del Rio only had a few weapons in the passing game.
Linebacker Jarrad Davis said Tabor’s presence will allow Florida’s other defenders to let their guard down and not worry about busted coverages or missed assignments.
“You never know when you have young guys going out there, especially for their first game,” Davis said. “With Teez back there though, it’s going to make things a lot easier. We’re going to be able to communicate with him and he’s going to know what’s going on. And just his experience as a player and being in the moment, we’re not going to have anything to worry about.”
Starting tight end DeAndre Goolsby had three catches for 28 yards in the first game, but the Gators want to feature that position more. They plan to run two tight end sets with Goolsby and Lewis, who brings a different dynamic to the offense.
“Really athletic, long tight end,” Del Rio said of Lewis. “He’s extremely coachable and has good hands. … It’s hard for defenses because they see you have two tight ends and they think you will run the ball, but if you look at those guys they are great pass-catching tight ends. It does put some stress on defenses.”
McElwain believes the suspensions hit home for Tabor and Lewis.
“When you take something way from somebody that’s really important, you hope maybe they learn from their actions,” McElwain said. “You’ve probably have done that with people you know at some point. That’s really what it’s all about. I expect great play from both of them.”
Zach Abolverdi is the Florida beat writer for SEC Country and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.