GAINESVILLE, Fla. — As Florida’s season-opener against Michigan progressed, defensive coordinator Randy Shannon saw the Gators’ freshmen begin to get more comfortable in the system.
While the Gators lost 33-17 to the Wolverines and the defense wore down as the second half progressed, Shannon said he saw the enthusiasm from the first-year players as they played inside AT&T Stadium — home of the Dallas Cowboys.
Shannon knew it was going to be a necessity for Florida to play freshmen in some instances — especially in the secondary — but he added that the Gators’ priority is getting the best players on the field, regardless of collegiate experience. That mentality, Shannon said, will continue as the Gators progress through the season. The next opportunity is Saturday when No. 24 Florida hosts No. 23 Tennessee at 3:30 p.m. ET to open SEC play.
“It doesn’t make a difference if it’s a senior or a freshman or a sophomore,” Shannon said Thursday on Florida’s weekly radio talk show.”You play the best person to give us the opportunity to win a lot of games. And make sure they’re having fun.”
In total, eight first-year defensive players saw the field in the season opener. Three defensive backs — Marco Wilson, C.J. Henderson and Shawn Davis — all saw extensive playing time. Wilson started at cornerback opposite Duke Dawson and slid over to nickel when the Gators had three corners on the field. He recorded 3 tackles. Henderson played outside corner in those nickel situations and responded with a pick-six in the second quarter.
Davis was used early on as the Gators’ third safety behind starters Nick Washington and Chauncey Gardner, rotating in when either needed a breather. He finished with 3 tackles and played most of the second half after Gardner suffered a knee injury.
“If you have a great player, you change what you do to make sure that young player is able to contribute to the football team,” Shannon said. “Sometimes as a coach, you say ‘This is what I do,’ but if you have a great player sitting on your bench, you’re not helping your team become a very good team.”
Florida coach Jim McElwain added that Shannon has developed a knack for adjusting to the personnel he has at his disposal.
“I think the one thing that Randy has done an outstanding job of on the defensive staff is knowing all the young faces coming in,” McElwain said. “What they did was go ahead and work with the pieces that were there and simplify as much as you can.”
Shannon each each player on the Gators’ roster has a role in the team’s success. However, he doesn’t want anyone getting complacent as the season continues.
That mindset also seeps into his recruiting principles. When the Gators sign a player, Shannon doesn’t want them being OK with a backup role. Rather, he wants them to compete every chance they can to get on the field.
“We always have this mentality that we want the best in the country that are winners and won’t accept to be second,” Shannon said. “If we can always have guys coming in that say ‘I’m better than that next guy who’s at the starting position,’ we’ll have a better football team. We will continue to do that.”