Jordan McPherson/SEC Country
Florida freshman defensive backs Marco Wilson (3) and CJ Henderson (5) go through drills in practice Thursday.

Jim McElwain on Gators’ freshmen: ‘We did pretty darn good in recruiting’

Ryan Young

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida coach Jim McElwain said a wise man once told him there’s a reason lightweights don’t fight heavyweights.

And as he looked around the practice field Thursday afternoon on the start of fall camp, he felt assured that his newest Gators are poised to one day be the matchup problems for which other teams have to worry.

“You know what, we did pretty darn good in recruiting, guys,” McElwain said later in the evening. “I really feel without naming guys that it was really a good-looking crew. I like the way that they hustled. I liked the way that they didn’t get affected by the chaos that’s created in our practice plan.”

And he liked the size, speed and physical make-up of a freshman class that will be asked to contribute quickly at some key spots.

In multiple ways, McElwain has been giving off the vibe leading into this season that he feels his program is closer than ever to where it needs to be to truly compete for SEC championships. He’s heaped praise on the offensive line and reiterated how far the unit has come from when he first arrived. He’s touted the depth he feels the Gators have at most positions now and the competition within practice that will produce.

On Thursday, it was the Gators’ recruiting progress he highlighted without requiring any initial prompting.

“That was one of the things I think I talked about, just trying to get longer, right, thicker, a little bigger. I think when you look at your schedule, (you compare yourself against) some of those teams that you have to beat,” he said.

Whatever the gap, the Gators seem on track to continue closing it quickly with the momentum surrounding their 2018 and 2019 classes as of now.

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True freshmen defensive linemen Elijah Conliffe (57) and TJ Slaton (56) go through their first practice at Florida. (Jordan McPherson/SEC Country)

As for the present freshmen, McElwain doesn’t like to single out individuals, to anoint anybody or add to any existing hype before they’ve played their first game.

But he needed only one practice to start assuaging concerns about the voids the Gators have to fill in the secondary.

There was already considerable buzz about Florida’s six incoming defensive backs — cornerbacks CJ Henderson, Brad Stewart, Marco Wilson, Brian Edwards and safeties Shawn Davis and Donovan Stiner — and McElwain stoked the optimism for that group further.

“If I were to kind of single out a group, those defensive backs look like they belong,” he said. “Now, we’ve got a lot of camp left, but as far as walking off the bus, those guys are going to be OK. That’s a good thing. Now we’ve got to teach them what to do and get them comfortable in everything that we throw at them.”

The Gators are especially thin at cornerback after losing starters Quincy Wilson and Jalen “Teez” Tabor. Senior Duke Dawson has claimed one of those spots, sliding over from nickel, and versatile sophomore Chauncey Gardner Jr. could end up on the other side. But those freshmen are going to be pressed into action in some capacity.

And with Marcus Maye also gone to the NFL and senior Marcell Harris lost to a torn Achilles tendon, the safety spot isn’t any deeper. Fifth-year senior Nick Washington is back and Gardner could eventually land at safety if the depth at corner proves strong enough, but again, the Gators will need help from their newcomers.

Stewart, who was ranked as the No. 19 cornerback in the Class of 2017 according to the 247Sports Composite, worked with the safeties in the first of the split-squad practices Thursday. McElwain said Stewart and Wilson also worked at nickel.

“Here’s a good thing is I do feel like we’re going to have some flexibility back there,” McElwain said. “… We’ve got to figure out what they do best and then get them in that spot.”

It was only one practice, but that’s the point.

Those freshmen will only get better and keep moving the program closer to the vision McElwain has had since taking the job. Or, at least, that’s how he felt upon his first impression.

“It’s actually a little bit, believe it or not, you know when you’re like a kid at Christmas and you kind of sneak out of your bedroom and maybe look at a couple presents and wonder what they are?” McElwain said. “… Seeing those guys for the first time it is a little bit like Christmas. No, I didn’t get a lump of coal in my stocking either.”