Jim McElwain's first recruiting class (2015) started 39 games
When the Orange and Blue Debut kicks off on April 8 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, the freshmen who starred, who sat, and the ones somewhere in between will already be working toward being sophomore stalwarts for the University of Florida.
Overall, 11 of the 20 enrollees played at least one game.
Those 11 players participated in a combined 114 games, starting 39. Receiver Antonio Callaway (13 games), offensive tackle Martez Ivey (8 games), quarterback Will Grier (5 games) all started at least a handful of times as true freshmen.
There will be one giant exception though on the night of the annual spring showcase, a quarterback who was a difference-maker for the Gators early in the 2015 season — in the best way and, ultimately, the worst way. Redshirt freshman Will Grier never made it to his sophomore season in Gainesville. He won’t be at The Swamp on April 8. Grier transferred in December after a potential breakout season came crashing down in October following his one-year suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs.
Grier appealed the penalty but was denied, and the Gators were denied any kind of consistency on offense for the rest of the season once sophomore Treon Harris took over behind center.
Before the suspension, Grier had the UF offense humming, and the Gators were winning games and soaring up the rankings under first-year coach Jim McElwain. The 2013 Mr. Football USA from Davidson, N.C., threw for 1,204 yards, with 10 touchdown passes and just three interceptions in only six games. Grier had a glossy 65.8 completion percentage and a 145.4 rating, all in about a month’s time.
He helped will Florida to a 28-27 comeback victory over rival Tennessee with two late touchdown passes, including the winning toss on fourth-and-14 to Antonio Callaway — another freshman — that sent The Swamp into bedlam. Grier backed that up with a gem of a game in a blowout of Ole Miss, going 24 of 29 with 271 yards passing and four touchdowns, as the Gators reintroduced themselves to relevancy in the SEC — and the nation.
But a little over a week later, a stunned and apologetic Grier was gone, and the Gators’ offense was never the same.
Callaway blossomed into one of UF’s main aerial threats in his first Gainesville fall, leading the Gators with 678 yards receiving on 35 receptions. The Miami native who didn’t commit to UF until National Signing Day last year caught four TD passes, tying for the team lead.
Callaway almost immediately endeared himself to Gator fans on that September night against the Volunteers, when he streaked down the right sideline on the fourth-down-or-else play that was called “Train Right, Jill, Big Ben In.”
“Antonio told me before the game that he was going to score,” McElwain told the Orlando Sentinel afterward. “He thought it was going to be on a punt return.”
It was Callaway’s first career touchdown, and quite a lasting memory.
Freshmen contributions to the 2015 Gators offense could also be found in the backfield, where Jordan Scarlett had 34 carries for 181 yards, with one of those carries going for 60 yards. Scarlett’s season ended with a thud though as the 5-10, 198-pounder from powerhouse Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas was suspended for the Citrus Bowl against Michigan after being arrested for misdemeanor marijuana possession.
Another freshman running back named Jordan from South Florida, Jordan Cronkrite, ran for 157 yards on 44 carries and found the end zone three times. Cronkrite, from Miami Westminster Christian, also had a receiving touchdown in a win over South Carolina.
UF’s offensive line held its own last fall without strength in numbers or experience, and freshmen played a key role in making sure of that. Martez Ivey, an in-state find for the Gators from Apopka High, was a natural left tackle who slid over and made an impact as a starter at left guard.
Over on the other side of the line, freshman Tyler Jordan started the final two games of the regular season at right guard, and first-year lineman Fred Johnson cracked the starting lineup at right tackle.
UF’s stout defense largely carried the Gators to a surprising SEC East title and a date with eventual national champion Alabama in the conference championship game. The defense was veteran-laden, not a surprise, but freshmen contributed.
The first-year headliner was Cece Jefferson, a 6-1, 275-pound defensive lineman who finished a breakout freshman season with 28 total tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. He forced a fumble, had a fumble recovery and a pass deflection. And he was rewarded nationally, being named along with Callaway to ESPN.com’s Freshman All-American Team and to the SEC All-Freshman Team with Ivey.
Freshman defensive lineman Khairi Clark added 15 tackles, one tackle for loss, one sack and one pass deflection. Defensive end Justus Reed chipped in with nine tackles, two for loss, and two sacks; first-year defensive lineman Taven Bryan had nine tackles, 1.5 for loss, and a half-sack, and freshman lineman Andrew Ivie had eight tackles in limited action.
REDSHIRTS AND DEFECTIONS
Clark was a redshirt in 2015 who filled in as needed as the Gators sustained injuries along a defensive line that still remained rock-solid, part of a defense that carried the team as the offense struggled to score points. Clark can look forward to the rest of a career in Gainesville that should promise more playing time.
The same can’t be said for Grier, the aforementioned redshirt who jumped into the starting lineup in the Gators’ second game against East Carolina. He was a big hit. Then he was suspended and ultimately decided to transfer, leaving UF with a big hole at the quarterback position that the erratic sophomore Harris struggled to fill during the rest of 2015.
The Gators had 21 commits among their 2015 class, all while dealing with a coaching change two months before Signing Day. None was an overwhelming reason for the Gators’ return to prominence last fall, but a few certainly had a hand in making that leap happen.
Callaway has set himself up to be a go-to target in Gainesville for as long as he stays, and he could have someone special lining up on the other side next year if the Gators can sign coveted Tampa Catholic wide receiver Nate Craig-Myers.
UF also appears to have found a gem on the offfensive line in Ivey, someone who could anchor the line over the next few years.
“[Ivey has] got such a spirit for playing football,” UF offensive line coach Mike Summers told the Orlando Sentinel last fall. “He’s a guy that loves to be in the game, loves to be at practice, loves to prepare himself to be ready to play.”
During a season to forget for UF’s offense after Grier’s suspension, Callaway and Ivey look like players to build around as McElwain adds to the offensive talent pool with his first full class in 2016.
A possible anchor on defense could be Jefferson, a five-star recruit who finally chose Florida in a drama-filled decision over SEC stalwarts Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Mississippi, and he also had Florida State listed as a finalist.
A 2015 recruiting class that was ranked 21st nationally but just 10th in the SEC managed to make some headway under McElwain during a stunningly special season in Gainesville, despite the coaching change and the Grier saga.
From a skilled-position guy who gets the glory and the fancy play title called for him at the end of a game, like Callaway, to the freshmen in the trenches who would only stand out if they made a mistake, it was as much a breakthrough year for this less-than-heralded Gators’ freshmen class as it was for the Gators themselves.